Interview with President Bill Clinton Part I
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JIM LEHRER: Mr. President, welcome.
PRESIDENT CLINTON: Thank you.
JIM LEHRER: Can we assume, sir, that tomorrow night in the State of the Union you’re going to declare the state of the union to be in pretty good shape?
PRESIDENT CLINTON: It’s in good shape and I’m very grateful. But I’m also going to challenge the Congress and the country to make it better.
JIM LEHRER: The things that are good about this country right now, how much of that do you believe you deserve credit for?
PRESIDENT CLINTON: Well, I think most of the credit, as always, goes to the American people. This is a country where citizenship is the most important job anybody can have. And I think we should start with that. And I think the members of Congress who have worked with us deserve a lot of credit.
But if you look at where we are now, compared to where we were seven years ago, I think the fact that we got rid of the deficit and a running surpluses, the fact that we changed the philosophy of the national government on welfare, on crime, the fact that we have formed unprecedented partnerships with people in the private sector to deal with all kinds of social problems, teen pregnancy, which is down, adoptions, which are up, the fact that we have protected more land than any administration in the country’s history, except those of the two Roosevelts, I think that those things are things that our government did.
I also believe that people have a lot more confidence now that we can actually do things as a nation. In ’92, we didn’t just have economic distress and social decline. We had this political gridlock and discredited government. The national Republicans had badmouthed the government for 12 years, and they’d done a pretty good job of convincing America that it couldn’t do anything.
Now we have cut the size of government by over 350,000. It’s the smallest it’s been since John Kennedy was here, and it really works to empower people and to create these partnerships. So I think that we have played a role in the recovery of the economy and in the improvement of the situation with crime, with welfare, with education. We’ve opened the doors of college to virtually all Americans.
And I think all these things count for something. And, of course, our country has been a great force for peace and freedom around the world. And I’m very grateful for the chance we’ve had — all of us — to serve here.
JIM LEHRER: Do you believe that history is going to give you credit for all the things you’ve just enumerated?
PRESIDENT CLINTON: Well, I think that’s up to the historians. I think that history will be very much more – the people that do serious history to this administration will be amazed at the amount of energy and effort that went into the wide variety of areas that we worked in.
And I think that it will show that in virtually every area we had progress from helping to reduce poverty, to improving the plight of our children, to creating an environment with the reform of telecommunications, reform of banking, and getting rid of the deficit — and major investments in technology to this exploding new economy. I think it will show that we helped America to make this major transition into a new economy in an era of globalization.
JIM LEHRER: Are you worried about what the historians are going to write about you?
PRESIDENT CLINTON: No. I can’t control that. But I think time will tend to accelerate the positive and put what negative there is into proper perspective. And I feel quite comfortable about that. But the main thing is I don’t think too much about it because I know that the only thing I could do to impact on it is to do the right thing today by the American people.
My philosophy has been ever since I got here that in the modern political world the most important thing you could do is get up and go to work and concentrate on your job — and always keep thinking about tomorrow. And all the pressures that operate on you are designed to prevent you from doing that — to hobble you, to distract you, to divide you, to get you to obsess about what somebody said and wrote or is doing.
And so my whole theory has been from the beginning that if we could start and give first four years and then eight years of unbridled, concentrated effort, no matter what else happened, the American people would be all right, and that’s really all I hired on to do, is try to help them do better.
JIM LEHRER: Let me read what the New York Times said in its lead editorial on Monday. They’re talking about you — your legacy and your presidency as you go into this last year. It said: “Historians are beginning to categorize Mr. Clinton as a politician of splendid natural talent and some significant accomplishments, who nonetheless missed the greatness that once seemed within his grasp.” What’s your reaction to that what might have been kind of thing?
PRESIDENT CLINTON: I think that — well, first of all, I think it’s not productive to talk about what might have been. But I think if you — the question is how do you keep score? What is this time like? How will you measure it? The time that this is most like is the turn of the last century. Did we manage the transition of America into a new economy, in an era of globalization, well or not? I think the answer is, we did.
Did we make social progress? Did we actually change the way we approach social issues? If the issue is crime, welfare, national service, the answer is we did. Were we good towards the environment? We were. And then what were the forces you stood against and what did you stop? And if you look at the forces we stood against from 1994 forward, and what we stopped, I think the answer is what we did was (a) successful and (b) good for America.
And then did we work with contending forces, when we could, to reach common agreement? I think the answer is we did. So, I believe that, first of all, there is no such thing as history, because this is still going on; we shouldn’t worry about that. You know, in five years, ten years, twenty years – I got a book the other day on President Nixon’s presidency, and then I got one a week afterward on President Kennedy’s presidency that are still being written. I just read a new book — a great book on Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency.
And I think the further away you get from it, the more perspective you get and the more you’re able to look at all the evidence. So all of us — frankly my view is in a way not much better than the New York Times on this; neither one of us really can properly evaluate how this will be viewed in the light of history.
I think that we have given what we could have accomplished within the framework of possibility of what was there, and the job that was there before us I think we’ve done pretty well. But all I can tell you is I worked every day, I did the best I could, and I’m going to let the historians make their judgment after I give it one more hard year.